The weather cleared by morning and the temperature in the jungle spiked by midday. No matter how much time she had spent in the lush mess of it, Sid would never understand the intricacies of Kartegan weather. One moment, Jericho’s light beamed bright above them, casting a net of scorching heat and making her pant with dehydration. The next they were running from the rapid fire of ice pellets falling from the sky. No wonder the humans built weatherproof shields over their city, who could live like this?
Sid wiped sweat off the back of her neck, careful not to expose the nakedness and purity of it. Her hair had grown out quite a bit since she landed on Kartega but she still worried that Ashlan might catch a glimpse of her non-chipped skin and ask questions. She’d tell him eventually, she had already decided that, but each moment seemed worse than the next. She couldn’t give him more to worry about, not when they were being chased by the Al’iil and the queen, and not so soon after Colton’s death. Her muscles tensed thinking of Colton’s face and she swatted at her wet eyes. I’ll tell him soon, I promise.
A sharp cold gripped her side, jarring her enough to jump. Fred’s metal hand pulled away abruptly as if she’d slapped it off and she turned to see Ashlan smiling from behind his screen.
“Hey! What was that for?” She yelled.
“You seemed out of it.”
“So that’s how you bring me back into it?”
“Worked didn’t it?” He smirked and went back to fussing around with the droid’s sequencing.
Despite herself, Sid was trying to be nice to him. After the exchange in the cave and finding out about his feelings for Tann, she was trying to be diplomatic and kind. She even offered to help him with Fred for a bit, which was truly more for herself than him since she missed the metal fool. But Ashlan seemed to be intent on driving her away. He refused her help, chose to walk as far away from her as possible and now he was tormenting her with her own droid. That’s it! I’m over it!
She marched toward him, kicking up dust in her wake. Ashlan didn’t bother looking up and she picked up her pace, almost jogging in his direction. Without warning, Dalrak swooped into her path and she ran face first into his chest. Sid yelped and rubbed her forehead, the hit already starting to redden from impact. Running into Dalrak’s chest felt a little like running headfirst into a rock.
“What the muck, Dee!” She yelled, eyes squinting in pain. “You don’t just ram yourself into people like that!”
The warrior pointed to the yellow glow of her shaking hands. She hadn’t even realized her magic had kicked in and the thought worried her. Having control of her power had not been an issue before, although Sid was quickly learning that most things that weren’t an issue before were becoming liabilities. Dalrak looked down at her then raised a finger to a small parting between two large trees. “Sum kalim todo set,” he grunted.
“You’re right,” she sighed. “Guys! Let’s take a break. We’ve been walking forever.”
“Your little legs getting tired?” Ashlan joked and she made a note to knock his teeth out later.
“Just settle in. We’ll be back.”
She followed Dalrak through the trees, careful to hide the growing electricity on her skin. She could hear water on the other side of the tree lined hill and, as she listened in, realized it wasn’t the same as the rapid flow of the jungle rivers. This stream sounded more like a hard pounding descent. Pulling a low hanging vine out of the way, the warrior led her through to the other side. Sid’s eyes jutted out as she took in the waterfall before her. She let her fingers tap against each other as she trailed her gaze over the heavy stream. The ones she saw in Tower City didn’t begin to compare to the wonder before her. The waterfall was easily twice as tall, reaching so far up that its starting point was lost behind fat, fluffy clouds that floated across it. The water splashed as it hit the rocky surface of the edge and she noticed a few aerial beasts circling above it.
“Turtuk,” the warrior said when he noticed her staring. Then pointed a finger at the flying creatures, “Turtuk.”
“That’s what they’re called?” She asked. “They’re beautiful!”
And they were. The Turtuk’s wingspan was bigger than Sid’s entire body and they were covered in a pearlescent fur that changed color as Jericho’s light hit them. Some of them flew so high she was worried they might hit the ring and catch ablaze. A foolish worry as the ring was well above the star’s atmosphere but it was something Sid thought about nonetheless. She couldn’t make out the exact features of the Turtuk from where they stood but there was a distinct red beak protruding from their faces and what looked to be very sharp, very pointed horns in between their ears. Sid thought about the masks the men and women wore at Magic and wondered if Serryl drew her inspiration from the winged creatures flying above her head.
“Wow,” she whispered and walked closer to the edge of the water.
There was little time to indulge in the wonderment around her. Dalrak spun around to face her, grabbed for her hands and punted them into his chest.
“Ow! What was that?” She yelped.
He picked up her hands and did it again.
“Seriously, Dee, what are you doing? You like being hit or something?”
The warrior raised an eyebrow and smiled. The subtle glow of his body intensified and she noticed him burrow his heavy legs into the ground. Electricity danced on his skin, calling to the magic inside her.
“Oh! I get it!” She whooped and mimicked his stance. “Well, if it’s my magic you want, why didn’t you just ask nicely?”
Sid closed her eyes and reached for the power that had already started to wake up. She felt the magic of Kartega rise in her, a steady pull through her legs all the way to her charged up hands. With a quick flip of the wrists, she pushed the energy that was threatening to escape into the small space between them where Dalrak had already readied his own magic to meet hers. Their energies collided, fiercely and without apology. It swirled in a ball of blazing power, growing into a towering electrical surge. Her hands mirrored the warrior’s movement as they raised the ball higher and higher until it was levitating just above their heads. Briskly and without pause, they slammed their fists into the ground, landing in a low crouch. The ball followed and pushed its way into the earth below them. Sparks flew around them, encircling them in a blazing wall of electrical fire. The energy swirled and shifted until Kartega was ready to accept it, swallowing it whole.
When the earth cooled, Sid stood up and patted the warrior’s broad shoulder. “Really, Dee, is it that hard to just talk to me next time?”
The warrior glanced up at her, eyebrows raised.
“Fine, be that way,” she said and started to walk away.
“You don’t listen.”
Sid spun back around, her eyes wider than wormholes. “What did you just say?”
“You don’t listen,” Dalrak repeated in perfect human words.
“Dee! Are you joking? You knew how to speak human this entire time and made me fumble around with sign language and pathetic gestures?”
“I don’t talk that good,” he sighed, “and you speak Kartega now. Sort of.”
She laughed. He had a point. She could hear the struggle to form the words when he spoke and she couldn’t deny that she quite liked the way the old language rolled off her tongue at times. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You sound just fine to me. Just need a little practice. Which you would have gotten if you just came out and told me that you understood everything I’ve been saying. You could have saved us a lot of time, you know.”
“You talk too fast,” the warrior shook his head and got up. “You always talk too fast.”
“Yes, well, keep up!” She smirked. “And thanks, for helping me release. Kuntara,” She added in his language.
“Il terko,” he said back. “Let’s go.”
Dalrak ran to the edge of the water. “Swim!” He shouted back, “You swim!”
“Oh, I don’t think so!” She yelled back. “I definitely do not swim!”
The warrior ran faster, ripping off layers of hide from his body until he was nearly fully bare. Like you’re not naked enough, Dee, she thought and tried not to look at the exposed dark skin of his back and legs. His legs pushed off the edge and he cannonballed into the water, causing a rip tide of waves to roll and splash at the edges of the falls. For a moment, Sid was worried he wouldn’t come back up. She wasn’t sure how swimming worked, having never done it herself, but she assumed one was supposed to come up after a while. When the warrior still hadn’t emerged, she ran to the edge and tried to peer through the dark, reflective surface. Before she could call out his name, a hand reached out from below, wrapped around her ankle and pulled her in.
Her backside hit the water first, followed by the rest of her body and finally her head. Sid tried to see around her but the water was too dark, too heavy. It had swallowed her whole. She splashed and kicked, forcing her way to the surface. When she finally reached the top, she realized her feet could just graze the bottom while still keeping her head above water. Dalrak stood in front of her, waist deep, laughing uncontrollably.
It was the first time she had heard the warrior laugh. Until then, she didn’t even think he was capable of laughter and even though it was at her expense, it was nice to see him happy. She raked her fingers through her soaked hair and rearranged her goggles.
“Thanks for that, glad you’re getting a laugh out of it.” She sniped.
The warrior splashed water in her face and she growled in frustration. Water. Time to get you back, Dee! Sid let her lips curl into a smile and sent a jolt of electricity into the water toward Dalrak. He jumped from the impact, rubbing his hands over the hair that stood up on his arms; singed from the shock.
“Not so brave now, are you?” She laughed.
“That was bad,” he said gruffly.
She chuckled again and started to dredge through the water back to shore. “Come on! Let’s dry off and get back to the others.”
They made their way back through the trees to where the group had settled in for rest. Sid’s boots sloshed with water and she was barely able to get the wet out of her hair. Ashlan and Tann were definitely going to wonder what happened to them. She ran through a few excuses for why they were both soaking wet, none of which sounded as believable as the truth. In the end, she decided it best to tell them that Dalrak thought it would be funny to push her into the water and leave the magic part out of it.
“Hey guys! Guess what?” She yelled as they stepped through the trees, “Looks like Dee here knows how to speak human!”
Her boots sloshed to a halt as they stepped over the barrier of trees. There, in the middle of the jungle where they had left the group, stood over two dozen Starblades.
Ashlan and Tann were both on their knees, their arms bound by lightlines behind their back. The Tecken were nowhere to be seen and Fred was slouched against a tree trunk, immobile.
She started to run for them, anger fueling her every move, but stopped as a Starblade pointed his blade at Tann’s throat.
“One more step and he dies.”